Because eight of Shakespeare’s history plays are so interconnected (the cycles of “Richard II / Henry IV, Part 1 / Henry IV, Part 2 / Henry V” and “Henry VI, Part 1 / Henry VI, Part 2 / Henry VI, Part 3/ Richard III”), the other history plays occupy an odd space. Technically, “King John” (and the apocryphal “Edward III”) could serve as prequels, since they are after all set before the proper cycles. “The Merry Wives of Windsor” functions like a spin-off. “Henry VIII”, then, could be conceptualised as a sequel to “Richard III” – or, more appropriately, a sort of epilogue, or coda.
I see the proper cycles as the story of what happens when the “hollow crown” that is the monarchy is exposed, when strength, wit, and Machiavellian manipulation become the means to the throne, rather than any sort of innate divine predestined value. “Richard III” ends with the purging of the increasingly depraved and violent sort of nobility that would pursue the crown in such a way, but even though Shakespeare frames Richmond and thus the Tudors as the cure to the disease of violence and wrangling that the Plantagenets, Yorks, and Lancasters went through, I feel the cycle of violence displayed in those plays was more of a fundamental part of human nature and draw to conflict.
In that sense, “Henry VIII” functions very well as a thematic coda to the series, connecting very nicely, exposing the hollowness of the promise of the Tudors, as it becomes clear that depravity and increasingly meaningless violence did indeed continue even after the supposed purging of the supposed sorts of individuals responsible for it.
That said, for all the thematic appropriateness of the play, it definitely doesn’t reach the heights that the proper history cycles did. Like “King John”, it doesn’t cover many of the most interesting parts of the eponymous king’s life, and instead has a much smaller, less interesting scope. That smaller scope would be most forgivable if it resulted in a tight, cohesive focus…but it really doesn’t here. There are some great scenes, but it never comes together in a powerful or cohesive way. It even feels like the most dramatic material is regulated offscreen – I took the similar sidelining in “King John” as just a matter of focus, but here it feels like an intentional avoidance of controversy. The best dramatic material of the real history here is diluted and avoided, and much of the depravity, conflict, and malice of the time is inferred rather than described. It makes sense in the context of propaganda, but Shakespeare managed to make “Richard III” great even though it served similar ends. I love what this play signifies in the broader context of Shakespeare’s histories, but the play itself falls flat for me.
I appreciate the great writing in some scenes, but after going through “Richard III” earlier this week, so focused and singular in its vision, it’s hard to feel totally satisfied by a play so comparatively diluted. In any case, I give it two rumours, and a dancing spirit.